I finally figured out how to respond when someone tells me to respect their beliefs!
The correct response is: “Can you please use that word in another sentence for me?”
The word “respect” is a tricky little devil, with at least three very distinct meanings. The person who says “respect my beliefs!” might mean this kind of respect:
You should respect my privacy.
Or this kind of respect:
You should respect your parents.
Or this kind of respect:
You should respect the work it took for her to win that gold medal.
In the first case, the word “respect” means to refrain interfering with.
Respect my space. Respect my time. Respect my right to make my own decisions in life. If that is the way you want me to respect your beliefs, then my answer is: of course! I will respect your beliefs in the same way I expect you to respect mine. We will each refrain from interfering with each other, and will go merrily on our respective ways!
But in the second case, the word “respect” means to give deference to or obey.
Respect the law. Respect the police. Respect your elders. If that is the way you want me to respect your beliefs, then of course I will not. And you shouldn’t expect me to, because you wouldn’t “respect” my beliefs, either! Nor should you: you should show deference to nobody’s beliefs. That’s not the relationship that any human should have to people’s beliefs.
When someone presents you with a set of beliefs, you may want to consider them. You may want to evaluate them, contemplate them, and determine their relationship to your own. You may even want to contemplate whether you want to adopt those beliefs as your own. But obey them? No. Give deference to them? I’d never even suggest it.
In the third case, the word “respect” means to admire or consider worthy of high regard.
Respect her strength. Respect his wit. Respect the time and effort it took to win a competition, or attain an advanced degree. If that is the way you want me to respect your beliefs, then… well, pardon me for being skeptical.
Is having a belief an accomplishment? In some situations it might be. If you have lived your life in the constant shadow of depression and insecurity and you finally have worked your way to a point where you love yourself and see the light and the power and the strength within you… then I absolutely can respect your self-confidence, as an accomplishment that you have achieved!
But you’ll have to take an extra minute or two to explain, if you want me to think that your religious beliefs fall in that category.
The cover image you see at the top of this article is an etching by James Barry (1795) entitled “Satan and His Legions Hurling Defiance toward the Vault of Heaven” (you can find more about this image and others at The Satanic Scholar website).
Satan was defiant. He did not respect God, in the second sense of the word. He did not submit, he did not obey. Think back to earlier when I asked you if you would obey or show deference to my beliefs: your answer was most likely “no”… so you can understand, maybe, where Satan was coming from. You would never simply bow for the sake of bowing to beliefs you don’t hold… and neither did the Morning Star.
And that’s fine… I don’t want you to respect my beliefs in the terrible authoritarian sense of submission and obedience. I will settle for you respecting my beliefs in the first sense of the word: to not interfere with. Respect my privacy, respect my autonomy, respect my beliefs… and I will likewise respect yours.